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The Best Questions

Can one find meaning in a pandemic? A SLU public health professor offers his perspective on good questions and hard answers.

— By Michael  Rozier, S.J. 

Michael Rozier, S.J.

There’s something about a classroom that always makes me a little nervous. It’s the good kind of nervous— the kind that comes from appreciating the stakes of what you are about to do, even if you are prepared— but it’s there nonetheless. This semester, the stakes seemed higher than normal, and I suspect that was in part because I was teaching “Introduction to Global Health” when a new virus was turning our world inside out.

Some teachers tell their students, “There’s no such thing as a bad question.” The statement is likely aimed at giving students permission to take risks in engaging the material. I don’t say it, though, because I don’t think it is true. Even those who claim all questions are good will certainly admit that there are better questions and worse ones. And in a strange way, this pandemic presents a chance to ask some very good questions.

The Questions on Our Minds

The questions early in the pandemic became part of nearly every conversation for months. How does it spread? What are the symptoms? Does wearing a mask protect me from it? These questions place the virus at the center of the story. They are necessary to answer, but it soon became clear that those kinds of questions could only take us so far.

The questions soon became less about the virus itself and more about our reactions to it. Is it worth the risk to go out to a restaurant or travel on an airplane? How should political leaders safeguard our health and our economy? Can we protect those most vulnerable from the insecurities and dangers wrought by the disease? Like the previous set, these types of questions have rightly become part of daily conversations.

Still, this particular moment invites us to something more.

The best questions from this moment will relegate the virus to a secondary character. Instead, we will consider ourselves both individually and collectively, and we will ask how we want to live, whether we find ourselves in a pandemic or not. What are my highest priorities in life? How responsible do I feel for my neighbor? How can we best organize society to ensure everyone has a chance to flourish? These are not the kinds of questions that get asked early in a pandemic when there are more pressing inquiries, such as where to find toilet paper. Yet, questions about a life well lived have always been with us. Now we have an excuse to talk about them more openly.

This pandemic has shown us how quickly we can collectively focus on a new set of ideas. It was not too long ago that terms such as social distancing, quarantine and flattening the curve would have held very little meaning for anyone outside of the world of public health; however, we now find ourselves using these phrases and many more as if it were second nature. Soon enough, I suspect we’ll all be talking about antibodies and contact tracing with the same ease. This occurs because we come to believe that these ideas are essential to survival. At the same time, what if we had the same collective commitment to ideas that go beyond mere survival and tap into what it means to thrive? Imagine if we could as quickly become comfortable speaking about vocation and community as we have become about key concepts in public health.

The Answers Aren’t Easy

There have clearly been disagreements about how to respond to the virus. There is nothing inherently wrong with people deciding they have different priorities or preferences. That is the beauty of public discourse in a free society. Yet, this crisis has forced us to face the falsehood that all answers are equally acceptable. That wasn’t true before COVID-19 made its leap into humankind, but it was easier to ignore. A pandemic requires that we admit we are bound more closely than we have been led to believe. My answers matter to you, and your answers matter to me.

My students already know that I believe there are bad questions, but they also know I believe good questions have the power to reshape our lives. The realities of this disease are going to last for a while. If we haven’t already, at some point we should find ourselves considering how this moment helps reveal who we are and who we want to be. I am not suggesting that practical questions aren’t important. We all need to know when it is safe to reconnect with friends and family. What I am suggesting is that we cannot afford to stop there. We must allow ourselves and encourage each other to consider what deeper questions we now have the opportunity to ask.

The best questions right now have little to do with the pandemic itself. As we ended this past semester, my students needed no convincing as to why the material we covered was important. They are living it. Instead, I ended the final class with a plea to consider why they — almost all majoring in public health, health management or social work — were important. What to study is a good question. What to do with the knowledge you gain is a better one. But the best is how what you do shapes who you are. It is the kind of meaning-making that naturally takes place on a college campus, but this virus has given us all the opportunity to ask the best questions we can.

About Michael Rozier, S.J.

Michael Rozier, S.J. (A&S ’03) is an assistant professor of health management and policy and health care ethics at Saint Louis University, where he also was the founding director of the College for Public Health and Social Justice’s undergraduate degree in public health. In 2008, Rozier was an ethics fellow with the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, where his work focused on the ethics of drug-resistant tuberculosis control and the response to pandemic influenza. He has a master of health science from Johns Hopkins University, a master of divinity and a licentiate in sacred theology from Boston College, and a doctorate in health management and policy from the University of Michigan. He entered the Jesuits in 2003 and was ordained a priest in 2014.

Saint Louis University is a Catholic, Jesuit institution that values academic excellence, life-changing research, compassionate health care, and a strong commitment to faith and service. Founded in 1818, the University fosters the intellectual and character development of more than 13,000 students on campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain. Building on a legacy of now more than 200 years, Saint Louis University continues to move forward with an unwavering commitment to a higher purpose, a greater good.